By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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"You can have every single thing against you in the entire world, but never give up. Don't ever compromise," advises jazz vocalist and pianist Denise Mangiardi. Speaking as much to herself as to her listener, she adds, "I have this continuing argument with people who say that I should be more flexible and all that. But every time I do, I become a fool. It just doesn't work."
A Long Island native who moved to Bailey, Colorado, last year, Mangiardi tends to romanticize her struggles: "I've been up against the odds my entire life--I'm getting really comfortable with it now," she says. Fortunately, her music has provided a productive way for her to vent her spleen. Fine Tuning, a just-released CD made up of Mangiardi-penned tunes and restructured jazz favorites, is a fine introduction to an artist whose life has been filled, she notes, "with some strange and varied experiences."
Indeed, Mangiardi's singing career has taken her through virtually every musical genre. At age ten, for example, she was already adept enough on the piano to play the classics. Her own compositions followed. "By the time I was fourteen," she remembers, "I was playing little clubs, singing my own songs." Her influences during this period--the early Seventies--were folk rockers such as Crosby, Stills and Nash, Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell. That changed when she was a senior in high school. According to her, "I heard my first Freddie Hubbard album, and that was it."
After her high-school graduation, Mangiardi moved to Boston, where she studied vocalization at Boston's Berklee College of Music and sang with a big band. The latter was the first in what was to become an eclectic series of gigs. Over the course of thirteen years of performing on the East Coast, Mangiardi notes, "I was in a bunch of Top 40 bands, and I did trio-jazz stuff that I did around the city on and off, whenever I could. There was even a period when I was living in Pennsylvania that I played guitar and sang country-and-western."
During the late Eighties, Mangiardi decided to return to Berklee to pursue several intensive jazz composition classes. While there, she met an Australian cartographer who later became her husband. The pair moved to Melbourne, where Mangiardi played on a weekly basis at one of the city's hotter jazz spots and made several television appearances. Before long, though, Mangiardi came down with a case of homesickness for America. She and her husband subsequently settled on Bailey as the ideal place to raise their two small children.
Still, Mangiardi didn't abandon singing, as Fine Tuning makes clear. The disc, recorded directly to DAT on a shoestring budget, contains the highlights from two studio sessions--one conducted in New Orleans and a second undertaken locally with the assistance of bassist Mark Simon and pianist Eric Gunnison. What holds the album together, then, are creative arrangements, plus Mangiardi's well-crafted, insightful originals and subtle vocal approach. She sometimes recalls other singers--Julie Driscoll Tibbetts, Julie London, Annie Ross, even Michelle Shocked--but most often defies easy comparisons.
"You have to learn all the history and go through the whole period of mimicking the standards," she says. "But you don't grow until you make some changes. If I tried to do what I did ten years ago--oh, my God. You learn to change, because you don't sound natural trying to sound like someone else.
"I know a lot of people connect belting it out with great singing, but I don't agree with that at all," she continues. "I'm pretty strong about not wanting to go out of my comfort zone. I know that can be boring to some people, but I put it out in a different kind of way. I put my heart and soul into it, and that's what I feel good about. When I change standards, it's because I want to make them mine. I want to do more than just compete with all these people who are trying to project an image of what a song is supposed to sound like."
Now that Mangiardi's first area date is behind her (she appeared at Vartan Jazz in late March), she's making plans for performances in more far-flung locales. She expects to work in New York for part of the summer, likely followed by a tour of Australia and Japan. In the meantime, she's forsaking efforts to land on a major label, because she feels that she's the person who can most effectively promote her work.
"I feel good about putting it out there on a low-key level," she insists. "That's my style. So I try to write music like that--music that I feel. I have these little messages in all my stuff. I don't write a song for nothing. The song is me--that's what I want people to know. That it's just me. It's Denise.